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Chicken tikka masala.

Described as 'a true British national dish' by the late Robin Cook and offered by every Indian restaurant worldwide, chicken tikka masala, or CTM as it has been dubbed, boasts a huge chunk of the sales of the almost half a million curries consumed in the restaurants and homes of the United Kingdom every day of the year.

So just what is chicken tikka masala? Tikkas are the bite-sized chunks of chicken which are then marinated and cooked in the tandoor (coal oven).

The masala part is where things become difficult. Masala means spices but no exact recipe for these seems to exist. It seems that the ingredients generally include yoghurt, tomatoes, cream and spices.

Remarkably, the concept was invented, not in India, but in the British Indian restaurant as recently as the 1980s. It is commonly thought that its invention came about almost by accident.

Journalist and restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab claims it was created when a Bangladeshi chef produced a dish of traditional chicken tikka only to be asked 'where's my gravy?'. The response was, supposedly, a can of cream of tomato soup and a few spices and the masala element was born.

Several chefs have laid claim to the invention of CTM but none with any evidence or witness support, so the mystery will have to remain.

It caught on at once, and swept so rapidly round the restaurant circuit that within a couple of years it was a standard item at all curry houses. Almost certainly without knowing it, that ingenious restaurateur, identity unknown, had created the world's most popular curry.

In British Indian restaurants more than 25% of all orders are for chicken tikka masala. Not only that, but it appears as a sandwich filler, as a potato crisp flavour, as a pizza topping, as a spaghetti sauce, as a flavour for mayonnaise, and in all manner of non-traditional guises.

Equally remarkably, before that date it certainly never appeared in Pakistan, where tandoori and tikka originated, nor anywhere on the Subcontinent.

Now, however, following Britain in a 'coals-to-Newcastle' move, tikka masala is to be found on the menus of the better restaurants in Bombay, Delhi and elsewhere, and it is equally popular.

And perhaps this is where the dish's greatest contribution lies. It may not come from the Raj or the kitchens of the Moghul emperors, but millions of people enjoy it every year and that is all the pedigree it needs.

Scott Hamilton Facts and figures about chicken tikka masala: Sainsbury's sell 1.6 million CTM meals every year and stocks 16 CTM-related products including chicken tikka masala pasta sauce. Other derivations include CTM crisps, CTM pizzas, CTM kievs and Marks & Spencer's famous CTM sandwiches (18 tonnes devoured every week).

A 1998 survey by Real Curry Restaurant Guide of 48 different CTMs found the only common ingredient was chicken.

23 million portions a year are sold in Indian restaurants.

10 tonnes of chicken tikka masala a day are produced by Noon Products destined for supermarkets.

Most schools and charities in Sylhet, Bangladesh, are run by proceeds from its sales.

Chef Iftekar Haris of Newport, Gwent, has written a musical in praise of it.

Organisers of Kingfisher National Curry Day claim that if all the portions sold in one year in the UK were stacked they would constitute a tikka tower 2,770 times taller than the Greenwich Millennium Dome.
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 18, 2006
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